It wasn't intended to be lengthy, but the letter I have written to my cousin turned out to be quite an undertaking. I took the breaks you guys suggested and did the crying you guys suggested and if interested, I would like to share with you. Apologies for the length of the writing. ...and I changed his name. And today I get to share with the T... guess it will be a crying session, which we all know I try to avoid. btw....I appreciate the men of MS so much.
This is Bill. Almost fifty years ago you called me Billy, as everyone else did. I was only 6 then, back at the time you left. I remember the morning I found out that you had died. I walked out of the bedroom, through the living room and into the kitchen. Momma was standing there and the family must have been gathered around, but I can’t remember exactly who. The newspaper was spread open on the kitchen table and I vaguely heard the words of a conversation. They were talking about you, Dickie. It seemed something bad had happened to you.
I remember being confused, and now I understand why. After all, I was barely 6. But clearly I remember Momma pulling a chair out from the metal table and telling me to read an article. I simply climbed up onto the seat of the chair and sat on my knees as I leaned over the print. I clearly remember the big “O” at the top of the page. I have always assumed it was the Obituary page of the local paper. Mom pointed to an article somewhere down the page and then turned to do her chores or continue her conversation or whatever moms do on mornings like this.
I read the words “Jonathon William Smith” out loud. Age 15. And it continued something like, “...died following an accident on highway 123...”
Jonathon William Smith. Dead. Age 15. Johnny, you had died. They told me of the accident- of your death- by having me read the newspaper. I was six years old and all that I understood that morning was nothing. I understood nothing. Death for a first grader is so abstract they just don’t understand. And I didn’t.
I have thought of you often over the years and I want you to know that the memories have always been good. You were the only cousin in the whole bunch of cousins that ever made me feel special. For whatever reason, you reached out to me in a good and kind and safe way. I wonder sometimes if you knew. Or maybe you had the kind of spirit that could discern the unspoken wounds of others.
Did you know the other cousin had had me sit on his knee while he masturbated? I was barely four when that started, Johnny. I never told. I didn’t know I was supposed to. He made me do that more than once.
He came in to our safe, harmless group of little boys- brothers all four, sometimes with a cousin or two or maybe a neighbor kid thrown in for fun. We were playing in the fields and woods near the house and he lead me away. I remember walking down the path following him. He took me away from my brothers and took me to a little wooden building near the old church. He did things to himself in front of me that day. I didn’t know what it was he did, but I was on his knee and his pants were around his ankles.
Did you know, Johnny? My brothers knew. Did you? After that, it just got worse. But what I want to say to you is that for a brief few years, I knew when I was near you and with you, I was loved. I was protected. Many times we were at Grandma’s house in the wide expanse of the side yard under the big oak tree and we played the games. My favorite was the Red Rover game. Everyone would be in the middle and you were always one of the team captains because you were older. The teams were picked one at a time. You always chose me. For whatever reason, you always chose me among the first on your team. And I remember standing beside you, looking up at you so many times. I remember my little hands inside your big hands as we made the line that was to be broken through while we played Red Rover. Such good things I remember about you.
I remember sitting beside you under the tree and you letting me lay across your legs while we all did what large extended families do. And games of army and tag and catching fireflies at night. And helping make homemade ice cream and being beside you while we ate Grandma’s fried chicken and mashed potatoes. And you sat cross legged on the floor and I sat almost on you while we watched the Circus on that old black and white tv. It was good. Being at Grandma’s house when you were there was so good.
These are good memories, Johnny. Very good memories. They are safe memories. They are memories of being loved. They are memories of being with someone I can call my “hero”. Someone who caused no blemish on my psychic, no stain on my spirit. I loved you and then one day you were gone.
I want you to know that the love you gave me was so special that I have never known it again. After you died, the sexual assaults continued, becoming worse. There would be a break in between, but someone else always seemed to show up and spot out the loner child I had become. The brothers knew I was different, even damaged, but definitely different. And they knew not how to interact with me, so they didn’t. I was pushed off to the side. It was a lonely, lonely life I lived growing up and when I think back, the early years of having you there were the years that make me smile. Even then I had the ugly secrets. But you became my safe place, my hiding place from the inevitable assaults that would take place.
I grew up, Johnny. I beat the odds, stayed focused, pushed the hurt way down deep. I had children of my own, two sons. The youngest is named after you, although in the clueless family from which we came few have the understanding to realize that. His name is Jonathon. Just like yours. I call him Jonathon often, we just don’t use the nickname of Johnny any more. I have told him when he was younger that he was named after a cousin of mine that I dearly loved, but I think we shall visit your grave site, and I will sit him down and tell him the full story of how you loved me. And me you. I want him to tell his son some day that his dad is named after a noble young man... named after you.
He has a special spirit himself, and he will understand.
I have learned not to spend my energy on senseless wishes, but sometimes I do wonder what it would have been like to have had someone with your selfless love with me as I became a man. Someone to share with and talk to. Maybe I would have shared my horrors and you could have made them stop. Maybe. I could have lived with you when you grew to manhood and my teenage assaults would not have happened. Just maybe.
How cool to have had you there when my sons came into the world. Or when my wife died, you could have been my big brother to lean on. Maybe, if you had lived, I would not have followed another and I would not have been assaulted in middle age. Maybe.
But what I do know, Johnny, is that I loved you. As a little boy, I loved you and I needed you. And I thank you so much for the memory of knowing that someone, at some point in time found me special enough to pick me first, to hold my hand as we walked, to let me sit beside him in a safe manner. And I am so sorry that you had to leave this earth so very early. Sorry for you, sorry for our family, and sorry for me. And tonight, I mourn the lose of my true first hero- maybe the only hero I have ever had.
I love you, Jonathon William Smith.
For now we see through a glass, darkly.